PAUL HOCKENOS is the author of Joschka Fischer and the Making of the Berlin Republic.See more by this author
The German word Energiewende is gradually edging its way into the English language, as Weltanschauung and sauerkraut, among others, did long ago. It is still too early to tell, however, whether this term is one that Germans will one day be proud of, such as kindergarten, or ashamed for, such as blitzkrieg.
The Energiewende is Germany’s historic, tremendously ambitious transition to clean energy as it exits from nuclear power (which Germans do not consider clean energy) and tries to adhere to tough EU carbon emission targets. In theory, all of Germany’s main political parties are behind it. But as the recently concluded national election campaign shows, there are vast differences of opinion among Germans over whether Germany, a first-order industrial powerhouse, can afford to run its economy on renewable power in the immediate future. Even so, the political legacy of Angela Merkel, who will soon begin her third term as German chancellor, will largely depend on it.
Germany’s relationship to energy has always been peculiar. First, practically all Germans are convinced that climate change is both an extremely dangerous, man-made problem and one that can be halted with the right policies. Unlike in the United States, fracking isn’t one of them. Acquiring natural gas on German territory that way doesn’t stand a chance -- a result, in part, of a tenacious grassroots environmental movement and a strong Green party. Opinion polls consistently show that over 85 percent of Germans are in favor of the Energiewende.
Second, most Germans have been soundly against nuclear energy ever since the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown in Ukraine lofted a cloud of airborne radioactivity over the country’s northern territory. By 2011, most of the political elite had come around to the same conclusion; the final yea-sayers were silenced forever when Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant melted down that spring. Merkel and her Christian Democratic party, which had previously supported a prolongation of nuclear power, shut down a third of Germany’s nuclear capacity overnight after the disaster, and upgraded ambitious targets for the country’s future energy use. Germany was to be nuke-free by 2022, get 80 percent of its electricity from green sources by 2050, and slash greenhouse gas emissions 55 percent by 2030 and 95 percent by 2050.